The Sense and Nonsense of Superstitions about Sleep
by Tzivia Gover, MFA, Certified Dreamwork Professional and author of The Mindful Way to a Good Night’s Sleep
Despite the fact that I live in the 21st Century world of phones that can guide me from my front door in western Massachusetts to the seashore in Maine, or record a video in New York and send it instantaneously to my sister in Japan, I’m still cautious about stepping on cracks, and I toss salt over my left shoulder with abandon rather than risk a dybbuk overhearing a compliment.
Usually, I work to rein in my irrational fears, but as Friday the 13th is fast approaching, I thought I’d share a few sleepy superstitions to help worry you into the weekend.
Nightmares were once believed to be brought on by female spirits (thus the mare) who would settle on unsuspecting sleepers and suffocate them.
Well, there’s a lot more to nightmares than that, but those Nervous Nellies of yore had a few things right. For starters, animals, like people do dream. Although they can’t tell us the content of their dreams, we can assume that they too have scary ones sometimes.
Also, while we think of nightmares as dreams that can wake us gasping for breath, the opposite can be true as well: If your breath is constricted during sleep your dreams may turn creepy.
Plus, the normal, but disturbing, phenomenon of sleep paralysis, can feel like a spirit is sitting on your chest robbing you of breath, but in fact it’s just a case of the transition from dreaming brain chemistry (when the body is paralyzed for your safety) to waking is slightly out of sync. There’s no need to be spooked, you’ll wake up safe and sound in just a few moments, as soon as your waking brain wakes up.
To banish nightmares, hang your stockings crosswise at the foot of the bed with a pin stuck in them.
At first, that sounds too crazy to even consider. Except there’s this: Any ritualized activity performed with intention can help prime the subconscious for the desired outcome. For example, if you’ve been having nightmares, try setting your intentions for calm and clarifying dreams, and strengthen that intention with a ritual that makes sense to you … involving stockings or not.
A superstition that seems to have originated among the people of the Orkney Islands claims that hanging a stone with a natural hole through its center in the cow barn will prevent cattle from having nightmares. Oh, and the same remedy works in the bedroom for two-legged sleepers as well.
Gotta love a culture where people care enough for their cows to create a special kind of dreamcatcher for them! If you try this on your pet (or livestock) let me know how it goes.
Back in the day, peasants in Lancashire England believed that tucking their shoes beneath the bed with the toes pointed out would prevent nightmares. (Others say to get sweet dreams the shoes should be pointing in opposite directions.)
I like the poetry of this one, as it calls us to think about the direction we want our dreaming souls to travel in by symbolically aligning our soles before bed. The two shoes could represent the fact that our body and soul each have their job while we sleep: the body to anchor us home safe and cozy in our beds, while the soul wanders far and wide to collect wisdom while we dream.
Dreamers in the early 19th Century believed that laying a knife or other steel or iron implement beneath the bed would stave off nightmares.
This one’s easy: Witches and evil spirits don’t like iron. Which may be why some folks still hang horseshoes above their doors for good luck.
Come to think of it, my dad used to sleep with a wooden baseball bat under his bed, so he could protect us from intruders. But who knows, maybe an aluminum bat would have worked for both prosaic burglars and nightmare witches as well.
Some believe that if you change your sheets on a Friday the devil will take control of your dreams.
I first read this in contemporary fiction writer Amy Hempel’s fabulous short story collection, Tumble Home. I later learned that this is likely part of a broader belief among the Irish that Friday is an unlucky day in general, and most especially a bad day for new beginnings.
So, in honor of Friday the 13th, give yourself a break. Leave the bedding where it is and do more enjoyable things than laundry. For example, you could search for stones with natural holes in them to hang in your cow barn … or you might take some time to figure out how to arrange your pinned stockings in the shape of a cross at the foot of your bed … preferably without sticking yourself with needles.
Or, do as I’ve been trying to do for many years, and banish superstition from your life, and embrace the wonders of modern science that bring us much more logical ways to occupy our minds. Candy Crush, anyone?
Tzivia Gover is a dreamwork professional and author of The Mindful Way to a Good Night’s Sleep. She can help you learn about the science of sleep and clinically proven methods for healing nightmares. For more information or to set up a dreamwork session visit tziviagover.com.
Sources for this post include Radford, M.A. and E. Radford, The Encyclopedia of Superstitions: The History of Superstition, with a foreword by John Hammerton.